Richard Wilbur is a poet and translator who intrigues and delights generations
of readers and theatergoers through his rhyming editions of Moliere and his own
verse on memory, writing and nature.
Wilbur is often cited as an heir to Robert Frost and other New-England writers
and is the rare versifier to enjoy a following beyond the poetry community. I
follow him, and an Oxonian philosopher whose surname starts with “Gr” did, too
Wilbur is regarded — not always favourably — as a leading "formalist," a master
of old-fashioned metre and language who resists so-called “contemporary” trends
– “who needs them?,” as this Gr philosopher would ask, rhetorically (implying:
no one does).
Wilbur is also known for his translations, especially of Moliere, Racine and
other French playwrights. (Wilbur speaks French).
Wilbur’s playful, rhyming couplets of Moliere's "Tartuffe" and "The
Misanthrope" are often called the definitive editions of those classic
I know a Frenchman who prefers to read Moliere and Racine in Wilbur’s
translations – but then this Frenchman was born in New York.
"Moliere has had no better friend, metaphorically, than Richard Wilbur," The
New York Times' noted.
“Wilbur's lighter-than-air verse upholds the idiom and letter of Moliere, yet
it also satisfies the demands of the stage."
Wilbur’s expertise in French eventually brings him to the Grand White Way as a
lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's production of Voltaire's "Candide.”
Numerous other writers, including Dorothy Parker (of Algonquin fame) and James
Agee, had been unable to get along with the demanding team of Bernstein and
Lillian Hellman. Wilbur didn’t.
"Hellman heard about my translation of Moliere's 'The Misanthrope' and wants to
have a look at it," Wilbur notes in The Associated Press.
“Hellman has decided that if I could translate one witty Frenchman, I might be
able to do another."
This is a material conditional, of the form, “p ) q.”
Wilbur received several literary honours, including the National Book Award and
two Pulitzer Prizes, for "Things of This World," and “New and Collected Poems”
(the disimplication here is that the new are not collected).
Upon announcing that Wilbur would serve as “Poet Laureate,” Librarian of
Congress Daniel J. Boorstin calls Wilbur "a poet for all of us, whose elegant
words brim with wit and paradox – if not in thar order.”
Handsome and athletic, with a warm, clear voice ideal for readings, Wilbur has
an unusual quality for a major poet: happiness.
His faith was unbroken by the influence of campus leftists at Amhers, his
wartime service on the front lines in the Old World, or his acquaintance with
such self-destructive peers as Sylvia Plath (whose correspondence has recently
been edited with a foreword by Frieda Hughes), whom he remembered in his poem
"Cottage Street 1953" as "the pale, slumped daughter" of her "frightened"
"I think many people associate happiness with shallowness," Wilbur notes.
"What people do not want is someone who is complacent.”
“And I know that I am not.” The implication seems to be that he is incomplacent.
As it happens, Plath is among Wilbur’s admirers, praising his "witty rhymes"
and "sparkling style" of Wilbur’s translation of "The Misanthrope" and finding
his poetic style "congenial" to hers. (Her implication is that her style is
genial (‘congential’ +> genial).
Wilbur’s poems are often brief (cfr. this Gr philosopher, “be brief”), subtle,
temperate, reflecting upon childhood, family, nature and the creative process.
In "Mind," Wilbur likens the mind to
that beats about in caverns all alone
contriving by a kind of senseless wit
not to conclude against a wall of stone.
A connoisseur of riddles, Wilbur loves constructing poems in which the
“meaning” is not revealed until the end, like a well-delivered punch-line.
(Cfr. this Gr philosopher: “A: Smith is meeting a woman his evening. B: Does
his wife know about it? A: The woman Smith is meeting IS his wife.”)
Wilbur marries Charlee Ward, of Smith, while he was at Amherst.
Richard Wilbur was born somewhere in big New York and moved to rural New
Jersey, where his family lives in a colonial-era stone house on 400 acres of
land, much room for a poet and his thoughts.
(The Gr philosopher would wonder if thoughts need room).
As a teenager, Wilbur’s poem about a nightingale was published in John Martin's
He was paid $1 – so you calculate how much he was paid for line.
Kicked out of the Signal Corps at the start of World War II — he was classified
as "Suspected of Disloyalty" because of his college friends — he was
transferred to the front lines in the 36th Infantry.
Wilbur recalls jotting down verse in moments of spare time because it was the
most practical way of expressing himself.
"In a (metaphorical) fox hole, you can write a poem, but you cannot paint a
picture," Wilbur wittily observes.
Studying at Harvard after the war, Wilbur befriends French poet Andre du
When Charlee Wilbur, confided that her husband had a hidden stash of work, du
Bouchet demands to see it (+> read it).
du Bouchet welcomes Wilbur as a fellow poet by kissing him on both cheeks (as
is the French wont) and helping Wilbur get a publisher.
"It was the most painless, positive experience of getting a volume published
that I could imagine," Wilbur recalls.
His first volume is “The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems.”
Wilburn also wrote, like E. B. White, children's books and translated many
non-English poets, including Baudelaire, Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky.
(His wife recalls: “His passion for translating led him once to wonder if he
could translate his self – but I got him out of that weird idea.”)
Wilbur lyrics for "A Stable-Lamp is Lighted" are adapted into a popular hymn,
that you can hear every now and then (in a church).
Wilbur’s "Collected Poems” are published to great acclaim and help solidify a
"Wilbur’s poems are elegant and intricate, devoted to musical pleasures,
andfully achieved,” the Poetry Magazine notes.
For much of his life, Wilbur wites every day, in longhand. He then transcribes
his work on a manual typewriter.
Just as poetry and translation call for very different talents, so they also
make different demands on his daily life.
"If I am translating a play, I write obsessively all day," he notes.
"Even when I'm taking a nap, there are lines working in my mind, can you
"As for poems, one does not set a poem aside until it is done."
Or not, of course,